Tuesday 16 January 2018

Wallace tips Munster and Leinster to conquer French foes and set up 'salivating prospect' of all-Ireland showdown

Reds legend confident Penney finally has balance right as he backs Thomond factor to prove decisive in Toulouse tussle

Munster legend David Wallace
Munster legend David Wallace
David Wallace pictured with rugby fans at the launch of the new website Aviva Advantages
David Kelly

David Kelly

David Wallace's bulging biceps still struggle to squeeze into an Ireland jersey, even if the rest of his creaking body so sadly restricts his displaying of the green to the occasional photo opportunity.

He is yards from the Lansdowne Road sward he graced for a decade.

Though he tries not to, he cannot avoid glancing at the spot where his international career ended so cruelly before the 2011 World Cup, victim of a tackle from Manu Tuilagi that crushed his knee and international ambitions in one fell swoop.

And so he can only watch with vicarious enthusiasm as his former colleagues pursue ambitions no longer afforded Ireland's greatest openside flanker; chiefly, the possibility of his beloved Munster facing off with Leinster for a third time in a Heineken Cup semi-final is an arresting proposition.

"It's a salivating prospect," he enthuses. "We all remember those semi-finals from a few years ago and they were such huge games. The interest trebles and the public really buy into it.

"There's so much rivalry between the teams that it becomes something other than a rugby match - maybe even the Heineken Cup takes a back seat for that one week. Would I play it in Croke Park? I'd play it anywhere. You could play it here, Croke Park or a big field in the middle of nowhere."

Many hurdles need to be cleared before that time, of course, not least on the field, although Wallace, twice a winner with Munster in 2006 and '08, is insistent that both provinces can plot a passage to an all-Ireland clash for the ages.

"More than any other team from France, Toulouse know how to travel in this competition," says Wallace.

"But I still fancy Munster's chances of winning. It's amazing that they've never met in Limerick so they won't know what to expect, which may work in our favour.

"Leinster have a tough one in Toulon but if you were going to back a team to beat them there, it would be Leinster, the way that we all know they can perform."

Toulouse served as a bellwether for Munster's nascent European ambitions: the Reds suffered humiliation against them on French soil before launching an audacious semi-final coup in broiling Bordeaux in 2000, featuring Wallace at its core, then beating them to claim their second title in 2008.

"That was a big step we took in Bordeaux, but we probably played our final that day in some respects unfortunately," said Wallace, whose side lost limply in a Twickenham decider against Northampton.

"And then beating them in 2008 was a real sense of accomplishment."

That 2000 win featured one of Munster's best ever European tries, a length of the field, off-loading and direct-running salvo that culminated in Ronan O'Gara's stunning try.

Wallace sees similarities within the current Munster outfit who, belatedly, appear to have solved the conundrum of how to fuse different styles after a difficult beginning to Rob Penney's Munster reign.

"They seem to be getting the hybrid right in terms of coaches and players," Wallace says. "Maybe they're getting more used to it. When you're learning something new, you tend to practise it an awful lot. And then you often do the things you practise to the detriment of the other familiar aspects of your game.

"It was always part of their plan to play a direct game coupled with the wide pattern. They're figuring it out a little better these days, when to play one style of game and when to play the other - they're more adaptable.

"They're a really hard team to beat at the moment. Like in 2006 and 2008, people may not have thought we played great rugby and maybe it wasn't the most attractive. But we won matches and were hard to beat and that's what makes champions."

Before all that, Ireland have a chance to tap into the provincial feel-good factor under new coach Joe Schmidt, although Wallace warns that the national side cannot afford to lose focus as they did during the November series.

"I absolutely am excited, but November was a learning curve for them," he says. "You have to work all the angles in the Six Nations, it's a completely different competition and you can't afford to take your eyes off the ball."

* To be in with a chance to win one of the Aviva Advantages prize packages for exclusive VIP access at Ireland v Scotland on February 2, see aviva.ie/experiences

Irish Independent

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